You saved my life. I’ll spare yours.
This one time.
Do not test my goodwill.
Eva frowned as Arachne read the three lines again. There was no signature, but it didn’t take a lot of guesses to figure out the sender. Eva could only recall saving one life in her recent memory.
Maybe. Zagan agreed to not kill her. As long as he was planning on following through with that, Eva didn’t actually need to interfere.
How Sister Cross got the note onto her pillow without either waking Eva or alerting Arachne was somewhat worrying.
A pulse of magic had Eva’s hand lit with thaumaturgical fire. She plucked the note from Arachne’s claws and crushed it in her fiery hand. The note evaporated into ash. She frowned again as she felt her fire die down.
Her master’s flames were green. Unless something changed in the last few months, her flame was a reddish-orange. Eva wasn’t certain there was anything more than a cosmetic difference. Still, perhaps it was time to ask for another lesson.
Perhaps not. Green fire would draw all kinds of attention. She had enough to go around with the gloves and blindfold as it was.
Eva set her unblemished claw down and looked over her sleeping roommates.
Juliana sprawled out over her bed with one arm hanging off. Her mouth was wide open and, while Eva couldn’t actually see it, there was little doubt a small pool of drool had gathered on the pillow.
Shalise was the exact opposite. She had curled up in a ball and stayed there ever since they returned the previous night. Every so often a shiver would run down her spine. A nightmare perhaps. Her heart rate was slightly elevated.
Neither Juliana nor Eva had mentioned their nocturnal activities, though word of the riot spread through the dorms like wildfire before some professors ushered everyone to their rooms.
As far as Eva knew, Shalise was not aware of her relationship with Sister Cross. They were friends in a sort of weird, generation-boundary-crossing way.
Still, Shalise clearly cared for the nun. She worried over her and hadn’t fallen asleep for a good portion of the night.
Eva flopped back down on her pillow. It was too early to think. Even discounting the late night she’d had. Arachne curled up alongside Eva, though she was at full alertness. Eva wouldn’t have a problem sleeping through the rest of the morning with that vigil over her.
I hope you appreciate what I did, Eva thought at Shalise as she shut her eyes.
Not that she ever intended to tell.
— — —
Lynn Cross fidgeted in the lobby of the Rickenbacker. She wore no coif, no scapular, no rosary, not even a robe. Simple jeans and a tee-shirt did not fit her.
To say it felt awkward would be an understatement.
Headquarters almost relieved her of command over Charon Chapter. She lost Nel, several members of Charon Chapter, and had the public turned against the Elysium Order. The public relations nightmare had been the biggest complaint, followed by the missing augur.
Nel’s disappearance weighed heavily on Lynn’s mind. They didn’t even have a body to perform the final prayers and ministrations upon. Headquarters declared her dead, though they planned to follow the procedure for all rogue augurs. Her blood would be watched nearly twenty-four hours a day for a full year.
Lynn did not hold out much hope.
As a last chance gesture, Lynn was being sent off to some town in Central Africa. Some upstart lich needed its phylactery destroyed and sent on to meet its maker. If the mission was a failure, or even a success with significant losses, Lynn would be relieved of her command.
They weren’t even going to give her augur support.
If she did fail, Lynn wasn’t sure what would happen. She did know that there was a semblance of regret regarding her own vial of blood stored in the Elysium Order’s vaults.
The mission had to be a success.
Lynn sighed as she leaned back in the lobby chair. Everything had become such a mess. She still wasn’t sure who to blame it on. The necromancers, probably. They were always a good target for blame. Eva somewhat.
Herself, as well.
Finding out about the darker aspects of Eva woke a streak of paranoia and mistrust. Overwhelming worry for Shal followed close behind. She was blinded. She ignored the teachings, lectures, and rules of the Elysium Order by focusing so much on Shal.
Plenty of people could have died due to some rogue poltergeist while Lynn stuck around trying to deal with a situation that no one in the Elysium Order was qualified to handle.
Worst of all was that Lynn still was not sure if she had overreacted, or if she hadn’t reacted enough. Eva still wandered the halls of school. She still slept in the same room as her daughter.
Yet she worried about calling in proper demon hunters. They were known to apply scorched earth policies to anything they deemed corrupted by Void.
Shalise walked into the room while Lynn thought. She walked just behind a chattering Eva and their blond friend. Shal looked… lost. She had a smile on, but it didn’t reach her eyes. They were empty and stared at nothing in particular as she walked behind her friends.
“Shal,” Lynn said as she stood up.
All three of the girls stopped in their tracks. The two who weren’t Shal looked on with a hint of confusion. Her daughter didn’t.
A smile crossed Shal’s face. It quickly twisted to a frown before returning to a soft smile. “S-Sister Cross,” she started.
Lynn held up her hand and shook her head. “I’m not wearing my habit right now. Just Lynn.”
“Sister Cross,” Eva said with some slight apprehension. One of her hands moved around behind her back, but she made no further move. Her head moved up and down as if she were examining Lynn’s body. She gave a slight nod and smiled. “You should ditch the habit more often.”
Narrowing her eyes, Lynn shot a glare at Eva. The little cretin couldn’t even see. “Shal,” she said as she turned back to her daughter, “could you spare a few minutes to speak with me. Alone,” she added with a glance back towards Eva.
“That’s fine, I think.” She looked over to her friends and said, “you go on ahead. I’ll catch up.”
Eva nodded and turned to leave the lobby without another word. Her blond friend trailed after her.
Lynn had half a mind to stop the girl. She had more than a few choice words for her. A lightning bolt to the brain, perhaps. Shaking her head, Lynn focused on Shal. Her daughter was what mattered at the moment.
Leading her off into one of the small study rooms, Lynn used her wand to set up a few privacy wards. Her air magic would arrest all vibrations in the air, thereby stopping sound from escaping.
Once done, she turned back to face her daughter. Offering her a small smile was all it took.
Two arms wrapped around her waist as Shalise pulled her into a hug. Pressed against her chest, Shal mumbled something that sounded like, “I’m glad you’re okay. I heard about the riot–”
Lynn ran her fingers through her daughter’s wavy hair. “I’m glad you are okay.”
Shalise looked up, confusion written on her face. “Why wouldn’t I be? The riots weren’t anywhere near the dorm.”
“I know,” Lynn said. “I just needed to check on you with my own eyes. I had a… scary night.”
That was an understatement. The idea that she needed rescuing from Eva had her gritting her teeth once again. Lynn shut her eyes as she took a deep, calming breath.
Lynn patted Shal on her back and gave her a light smile. “I thought about going back for you right after the riot, making sure you were alright and letting you know that I was alright, but I worried that might put you in more danger. I hope you’ll forgive me.”
An almost imperceptible nod came from her daughter before she looked up with her wide, brown eyes. “Eva and Juliana weren’t in our dorm for most of last night.”
A simple statement. One full of implications.
Her mind raced in wonder at how exactly to respond. One thing was certain, Lynn was not about tell her that Eva saved her life.
Eventually, Lynn decided.
“Eva has her hands in some very dangerous things. Things that are going to get her killed one day.” Lynn knelt down to get more on the eye level with her short daughter. “I want you to promise me that you will never get involved in all her mess. I want you to promise me that if things look even remotely dangerous, that you will get away and that you will come find me.”
“Alright,” Shalise nodded. “I can do that.”
“As for this school,” Lynn smiled, “there are other schools, though they will be significantly less free to attend. I’m sure I can arrange something if you want to transfer.”
Shalise shook her head. “Professor Baxter is a good teacher. She’s been privately tutoring me for a while now. I don’t know how other schools would be, but she says lightning is an end of third year spell. With her help I might be able to manage it by the end of next year, if not sooner.”
Lynn blinked at that. She hadn’t managed a proper thaumaturgical lightning bolt until half way through her fifth year. Pride welled up at her daughter. Shal would end up a far better thaumaturge than Lynn ever was.
Still, that didn’t release the school or its inhabitants from her worries. “If anything happens like the incident on Halloween, I will be pulling you out of this school.”
A shiver ran through her daughter. “That’s fair,” Shalise said with a nod. “I can’t say I enjoyed Halloween. Maybe this next year will be better.”
“I hope so too.” Lynn stood back up and rested her hand on her daughter’s head. “I have a mission in Central Africa for the Elysium Order. I’ll be leaving in just a few days. When I arrive, I’ll send some way for you to keep in contact with me. I want reports on everything that is going on in and out of school at least once a month.”
“Reports?” Shalise frowned. “How about friendly letters that sometimes mention bigger news?”
“I just want to know that you are safe, Shal.”
“I’ll be fine,” Shalise said. “I should go. Today is a review day before finals tomorrow.”
Lynn opened her mouth to protest. She had more she wanted to say. More she wanted to know.
In the end, Lynn simply smiled, patted Shal on her back, and said, “good luck.”
— — —
Finals started on April sixth. An event Irene did not feel ready for in the slightest.
Normal schools had classes that stretched into June. Not so with Brakket. Nonmagical schooling would take over for the remainder of April and the first week of May. After which there would be roughly a month of vacation before the summer seminars started up.
Several other students had entered the examination room. Juliana included. None of them commented on their score and none of them mentioned what the actual exam consisted of.
Some students went in with frowns and returned with smiles. Some did the opposite.
For a brief moment, Irene felt a vindictive smile cross her lips. Drew was one of those who came out with a frown. Petty, but Irene didn’t care. It was a brief island of happiness before she returned to her worries.
Juliana was the only one who looked bored going in and bored coming out.
If that girl got anything less than a perfect on any part of the test, Irene would eat her wand. She tried not to be jealous. She really did. Watching the metal she wore constantly flow over her skin before forming up in intricate patterns made Irene want to scream.
Why couldn’t her parents have given her a head start. They were mages. Surely they could have taught something. Neither Irene nor her sister had their wands before arriving at Brakket. Jordan had his wand. Unfortunately, he focused on things Brakket would never teach. He said he could simply learn thaumaturgy from Brakket Academy and his time was better spent elsewhere.
Irene wished he hadn’t. If only for the sole reason of being able to teach Irene proper thaumaturgy.
A call of her name snapped Irene out of her thoughts. She immediately chastised herself for letting her thoughts wander. The time waiting could have been better used thinking of earth magic thought patterns.
With shaky hands, Irene opened the door to the Earth exam room.
Sitting on a stool over a patch of empty earth was Yuria. A clipboard was in one hand and a pen spun between her fingers in the other.
She was a water mage, but that didn’t affect her observational skills and she could still manipulate earth. Professor Calvin delivered exams to the fire and air mages. Not that Irene minded. In truth, she was happy to have the perpetually cheerful teacher deliver her exam.
“Irene,” she said with a bright and friendly smile, “come in. Come in.”
She took a deep breath and stepped into the room. Her fear dampened through willpower alone as she crossed the room to the small earthen circle.
“Now don’t be nervous,” Yuria said. “You do excellent in class and I have high expectations for your exam now.”
Hearing the word ‘expectations’ did not help at all. Irene meekly nodded.
“If you would be so kind, Irene, I’d like you to try making a hole, a depression in the ground. You’ll get extra points if you make it square. More than three feet deep is not necessary.”
Irene nodded again. She withdrew her wand and pointed it at the ground.
She concentrated. The dirt was loose from prior examinees. That would make it easier to work with. Earth didn’t like to be moved. It liked to sit and be steady. With the proper thought patterns, she could incentivize the earth to move.
After all, the dirt would be even more sturdy when compressed.
Slowly, the dirt patch pressed inwards and to the sides. Once underway, more dirt followed far more easily. Like a landslide. The hole became deeper and larger. The corners formed with a flick of her wand. It wasn’t a perfect square. Irene thought it was pretty close.
“Marvelous, simply wonderful,” Yuria said with a huge smile. “Thirty-seven seconds and using compression.” She looked at Irene over the rims of her glasses. “Some students,” she said with a small hint of disapproval, “dig the dirt out of the hole as if they’re using a shovel.”
Irene just nodded once again, ignoring the praise. She could be happy after her exams finished.
“But this was excellent.” She scratched down some notes on her clipboard. “Next, reverse what you just did.”
With a deep breath, Irene started working. Decompressing the dirt would be more difficult. It was stable and sturdy, especially at the bottom where most of the dirt had compressed.
Still, with some concentration and the proper thoughts, Irene enticed the earth back to a mostly flat surface.
Yuria moved off her stool and stepped down on the center of the dirt pile. Irene noticed she had swapped her usual high heels for some hiking boots. Hiking boots that were covered in dirt.
“Excellent,” Yuria said. “Only sank about half an inch. You did a fabulous job solidifying the dirt. I’m very proud of you.”
“Thanks,” Irene said.
“Now,” Yuria said as she retook her seat, “a pillar. I’d like it to be hard, no crumbling away at a touch. It should also rise up no higher than three feet.”
With yet another nod, Irene set to work.
After several more tasks, including breaking down earth into pure earth essence, the testing concluded. Irene left the room with a smile on her face. While she didn’t know her exact score, she felt good about it. All of the tasks were completed swiftly and were met with high praise from Yuria.
Sure, Juliana might have scored higher than her in every aspect, including the bonus points for ferrokinesis which Irene hadn’t been able to work at all, but that girl was no better than a cheater. Her mother might as well have home schooled her for all the grades, or at least gotten her to skip straight to third year.
At least the scores were not graded on a curve.
— — —
Zoe Baxter had a certain amount of pride in her first year students. All three of them passed every exam. Eva may have skimmed by in her pyrokinesis practical, but she still got a passing grade.
More important than their grades were their actions. Zoe still could not approve of their instigated riot. She desperately hoped that they might confide in her any future plans of that level.
Eva intervening to save the life of her friend’s mother despite the very unsubtle hostility between the two just made Zoe all the more confident that she had chosen correctly when she invited the girl to Brakket Academy.
That Eva’s actions somewhat vindicated both of them in Wayne’s eyes hadn’t hurt her mood.
Zoe frowned as she thought back to that night. She had let Rex–no. She had let Zagan into her home. Had met up with him at Tom’s bar once or twice. All-the-while he had been a wolf in a sheep disguise.
To think he had the nerve to waltz up to her the next day and casually ask how she was doing. And Martina Turner planned to put him in a classroom? With children?
Zoe was at a loss for what to do. She couldn’t fight someone like that. Resigning in protest had crossed her mind. The idea vanished as soon as she realized that it would change nothing. Zagan would still be in a classroom, but she wouldn’t be around.
In the end, sticking with the school while making her displeasure known to Martina was all she could do.
In less than a week, Zoe would have to go out searching for candidates once again. Whispers of one potential had reached her ears. That was one more than all the years before Eva’s year. She’d need to find at least a second for a roommate, if the first potential turned out well enough.
Not a prospect Zoe was looking forward to, not just because of the idea of placing additional children under Zagan’s influence. However, the year under Eva’s would be involved in raising Brakket’s accreditation. If successful, maybe they would be able to hire a proper instructor in his place. It might be good to go the extra mile and find a full three students.
She wasn’t sure she’d find students as talented as Juliana or with the unique talents of Eva. Even Shalise had thrown herself into her studies. The brown-haired girl had been working double time on exercising her magical abilities.
Because of the pride she felt in her students, Zoe had a very conflicted feeling in her chest as she looked over the door to room three-thirteen.
With another sigh, Zoe shook her head. “What is this?”
“Homework,” Shalise said with a smile.
The brunette had been upset shortly after the incident with the riot. She bounced back the day before finals started and had been smiling ever since. A sighting of Sister Cross on campus was the likely culprit.
Zoe was originally worried, but Shalise did not seem to be faking or repressing anything. She was simply her happy self.
So, Zoe tried to keep a smile on her face as she spoke to the girl. “I don’t remember any of my colleagues mentioning anything about carving runes into the wood of the dormitory doors.”
Eva sat up from her bed. A small snake wrapped itself between her fingers and turned to stare straight at Zoe.
She could almost feel the beady eyes trying to turn her to stone. It gave Zoe a small start until she realized what it was. One of Genoa’s little toys.
“Maybe if Brakket wasn’t such a backwards school,” Eva said, “they’d actually have a proper rune class. Juliana thinks I should start up my own seminar over the summer and charge students for teaching them runes. I said it was too much work.”
“You’re already teaching Shal,” Juliana said. “What difference does it make if you add two or fifty students. Charge each student twenty dollars per lesson and hold class once a week. I’ll take twenty percent for the idea. Another twenty percent if I go locate willing pupils for you.”
“I think I’ve been tricked with our privacy packets. You seem to collect a good chunk of money for doing nothing but delivering the packets to our buyers.”
“Those were the terms we agreed on when we started. I don’t think I’m up for renegotiating.”
“This,” Zoe cut in, “is all well and good, but can we return to talking about the door? Specifically the carvings in it.”
Shalise stepped up and ran a finger over the markings. “These should let out a high-pitched noise for a few seconds if the door is broken. There are similar runes on the windows.”
“It’s a start,” Eva said, “as I keep teaching Shalise runes, she might add more features. An alarm is functional, but something that attacks attackers back would be better.”
“But,” Zoe sighed, “why?”
Eva just looked at her like the answer was obvious. And it was, but Zoe still wanted to hear it from the girl’s mouth.
Shalise was, to Zoe’s surprise, the one to speak up first. “We were forced out of our room twice in this very year, though I missed the first incident. Both times were because of the room being assaulted. First Juliana, then Eva. Next time is my turn and I’m not nearly as confident as these two.”
“You said it yourself,” Juliana said, “something went wrong with whatever wards you have set up to alert you of danger. Maybe Shalise’s alarm will alert someone.”
“Not to mention,” Eva said, “Wayne Lurcher’s response time when Sis–” Eva cut herself off with a glance to Shalise. The brunette did make any outward change of emotion. “When I was attacked; his response time left much to be desired.”
Zoe sighed. She rubbed a finger on the center of her forehead. “I understand that. It’s just… these doors are solid wood. Heavy wood. They’re not cheap. And the glass too?”
“Yeah, they’re actually pretty good materials to use. I’ll be charging the runes with Arachne’s blood. They’ll last a lot longer before degrading than if we were to charge the runic array with magic directly.”
Arachne would be a capable defender, hopefully, in the incredibly unlikely event that dorm three-thirteen was indeed attacked again. Then again, she was a demon. Zoe wasn’t even sure that was something to get hung up about anymore. Arachne had proven herself to be, at the very least, not hostile towards the students and staff. Zoe doubted she would care half as much if Arachne were an elf or some other magical creature.
“Just,” Zoe said after a moments thought, “if this starts another riot, I’ll have all three of your hides.”
“Zoe Baxter,” Eva said, “was that a joke?”
“I think that was a joke. It was, right?”
“Why my hide?” Juliana huffed. “I’ve got nothing to do with this.”
“You’re complicit by association,” Zoe said.
That got another huff of complaint, though Eva started laughing.
“I do want to know everything you add to this. I want to know when your defenses activate, why, and what they do. This cannot be a danger to innocents who may inadvertently wander into your room for whatever reason.”
“I’ve thought about that, and we will let you know.” Eva nodded. Her voice carried a more serious tone. “For a while, I considered setting up the full array of blood wards that I’ve got running at the prison. You know,” she smiled, “the ones that explode people who get too close.”
Zoe blinked and shook her head. “I’m glad you didn’t.”
“It would have been too much of a pain to key everyone in. Not to mention too revealing that I’ve got and use bloodstones if anyone makes the connection. I’m sure there is some suspicion going around due to the state of the room after I was attacked, but I’d like to keep it at suspicion level and not move to confirmation.”
“Understandable.” Zoe shook her head again. “Seeing as you’ve already damaged the door–”
“Improved,” Eva said.
“I will allow you to continue modifying.” Zoe looked over to Shalise and met the girl’s eyes. “So long as you write essays on why runes work, list out every rune you use and their uses, and stick to what I said earlier about the safety of your defenses.”
“Great. More homework.”
— — —
“School? What would I ever do at a school?”
“Learn something, I should hope,” her father said with a small smile.
“Daddy…” She stood up from their dinner table and ran to the other side. She gave her father a light peck on the cheek. “I’d much rather stay at home and play.”
He ruffled her blond hair. “Oh don’t you worry. There are a few months before you have to be at school. Even while you’re there, I’ll be around. We can have fun on weekends and after school.”
Des sighed. Her father seemed set on it. Once he got an idea in his head, he never let it go.
School had been a thing in their family once. It didn’t turn out well.
Des slunk back to her seat. She picked up her cheeseburger and took a chunk out of it.
“Now now, honey, no sulking.”
“I’m not, daddy. I’ll go.”
He smiled. “Good.” His own burger was already gone.
Her mind whirred as she tried to come up with excuses to get out of going. Nothing would work, but that didn’t mean she wouldn’t try.
“What if it is like before? I don’t want to be freaky Desi again.”
“That was a regular school,” he sighed, “and a mistake. Don’t worry. This is a school for mages.”
“And they won’t think I’m weird?”
Her father chuckled. “Honey, everyone is a little weird. But in this case, I think they will be happy to have you.”
“They better,” Des said. She started towards her burger but stopped as a thought occurred to her. “It is a mage school? Can I even do magic?”
“Well, no,” he said. If she couldn’t do magic, she didn’t have to go to mage school. He waited just long enough for Des to start feeling happy. “But,” he said just to dash her hopes, “I’ve been working on a little something these past few months. It will be ready to install in the morning.”
She crossed her arms and gave her father a glare. Des hated the word ‘install’ especially when it came out of her father’s mouth. It never preceded anything but pain.
“Ah-ah. I said no sulking.” He ticked his finger back and forth. “If you’re a good girl, maybe we’ll see if Hugo wants to go with you. Now finish your food and maybe we’ll have time for a story before bed.”
Des lunged for her burger. She chomped the last half of it down in two bites.
“Remember to chew,” her father chided with a smile.
Des did. She always remembered. She shook her head. Silly father, she thought as she swallowed. “Story time now!”